Real Lessons from a Fake SEAL

A SEAL trident is the military equivalent of a diploma from Yale and a tap from Skull and Bones. It should come as no surprise that the occasional mediocrity claims, falsely, to have earned one. That some of these fakes happen to be clergymen also sounds like a fair enough proposition — priests and preachers are supposed to have a gift for gab; who can predict where that gabbing might lead?

But when a Christian Bible Fellowship pastor named Jim Moats told his tale of stolen valor — which, Lookout’s Liz Goodwin observes, he seems to have raided from Steven Segal’s Under Siege — a retired SEAL named Don Shipley made a comment that did shock me:

“We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,”

It makes a depressing kind of sense: where religion is concerned, it’s a buyers’ market, which means that, for sellers, it’s a mug’s game. Anyone who wants to stay in business has got to seize every advantage, and failing that, to invent a few. I don’t know who Reverend Moats considers his chief competitor, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the guy’s indulged in some strategic misrepresentation of his own. Maybe he wears someone else’s Special Forces tab, or preaches about how he used to party with John Holmes and Eddie Nash.

This is one reason I’m glad to be Catholic. People like to complain about our clerical culture — how priests can only gain preferment by polishing the apples of the higher-ups, and by suppressing any idea that smacks of originality. Bully for us, I say. I’ll take a bland, timid careerist over a mendacious self-starter any day. Yes, both we and our competition have plenty in between, but as a worst-case scenario, I tend to favor ours over theirs.

One of these days, I’ll have to write a book titled Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned in the Subprime Mortgage Industry. Actually, it’s truer to say that my time in subprime taught me everything I needed to know about the flummery involved in self-promotion. The people who prospered most were those who lied about themselves so naturally, I sometimes wondered whether they remembered they were lying.

One guy in particular deserves the “What is Truth?” trophy. Though he’d moved to Arizona from Mexico only several years earlier, he spoke English not just well, not just perfectly, but so closely in line with prevailing aesthetic norms that he sounded less like an individual than a composite of various anchormen. (At times, I deteched a faintly camp lilt, but I suspect this resulted from his having lived for a time on Cozumel.) A Colombian colleague once told me — in an awed whisper, as though dodging a hex — that he had taught himself to speak Spanish with an American accent.

His name was Raul; he went by Ron. His hair was dark; he frosted his tips. Initially, his commission checks were small; he found someone to sell him swag Armani at a 75% markdown. He had no credit; he leased a Beamer. To re-invent himself in the image of the successful American businessman, he spared no plume of smoke, no mirror.

To the rest of us — poor, hungry, ungifted slobs striving for a slot in the middle class — he was a regular Pied Piper. Before long, everyone was leasing a luxury car and wearing suits that had, providentially, fallen off the backs of trucks. He even changed our job titles.

“I don’t like the sound of ‘loan officer,'” he told the owner of the brokerage. “It sounds so, you know, mercenary. How about ‘mortgage consultant’?” As a counter-suggestion, I offered “mortgage artist,” but of course nobody listened.

Now, granted, there are some priests with huckters’ instincts, and even some who have lied about their military service. Frank Weathers busted Fr. Tom Euteneur for posing as a former Marine, whereas in fact he’d been no more than an officer candidate. But their rewards amount to chump change. You’re not going to find them in a chancery, much less a dicastery. My own bishop, the Most Reverend Thomas James Olmsted, has no discernable personality, and I admire him greatly for it.

One thing, though: isn’t it too bad no Navy SEAL has been caught inventing a clerical past? “Yup, graduated Pontifical College Josephinum, at the by-God top of my class. Who’s got this round?”

— M. Arthur Lindenman, blogiste

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